Johannes Vermeer The Concert 1663
Stolen from Gardner Museum March 18 1990, the single largest art theft in the world. Never recovered
At some point it will stop. But it’s just too tempting.
The world’s richest 1% are on course to control as much as two-thirds of the world’s wealth by 2030, according to a shocking analysis that has lead to a cross-party call for action. World leaders are being warned that the continued accumulation of wealth at the top will fuel growing distrust and anger over the coming decade unless action is taken to restore the balance. An alarming projection produced by the House of Commons library suggests that if trends seen since the 2008 financial crash were to continue, then the top 1% will hold 64% of the world’s wealth by 2030. Even taking the financial crash into account, and measuring their assets over a longer period, they would still hold more than half of all wealth.
Since 2008, the wealth of the richest 1% has been growing at an average of 6% a year – much faster than the 3% growth in wealth of the remaining 99% of the world’s population. Should that continue, the top 1% would hold wealth equating to $305tn (£216.5tn) – up from $140tn today. Analysts suggest wealth has become concentrated at the top because of recent income inequality, higher rates of saving among the wealthy, and the accumulation of assets. The wealthy also invested a large amount of equity in businesses, stocks and other financial assets, which have handed them disproportionate benefits.
New polling by Opinium suggests that voters perceive a major problem with the influence exerted by the very wealthy. Asked to select a group that would have the most power in 2030, most (34%) said the super-rich, while 28% opted for national governments. In a sign of falling levels of trust, those surveyed said they feared the consequences of wealth inequality would be rising levels of corruption (41%) or the “super-rich enjoying unfair influence on government policy” (43%).
Once they have new identities, nobody can ever ask them a question again.
Britain is considering offering poisoned Russian ex-spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia new identities and a fresh life in the United States in an attempt to protect them from further murder attempts, the Sunday Times newspaper reported. It said officials at the MI6 intelligence agency have had discussions with their counterparts in the CIA about resettling the victims poisoned last month in the English city of Salisbury. “They will be offered new identities,” it quoted an unidentified source as saying.
The paper said its sources believed Britain would want to ensure their safety by resettling them in one of the so-called “five eyes” countries, the intelligence-sharing partnership that also includes the United States, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. “The obvious place to resettle them is America because they’re less likely to be killed there and it’s easier to protect them there under a new identity,” it quoted what it called an intelligence source familiar with the negotiations as saying. “There’s a preference for them to be resettled in a five-eyes nation because their case would have huge security implications,” the source added.
Some are more equal than others.
Facebook secretly deleted private messages from people’s inboxes that had been sent by CEO Mark Zuckerberg, the company has admitted. Messages disappearing from people’s inboxes was first noted by TechCrunch, who cited three sources whose inboxes had been tampered with. It is not possible for normal Facebook users to delete messages from other people’s inboxes, though Mr Zuckerberg and other executives appear to have had access to the functionality for several years. Facebook said in a statement that the self-destructing feature was added in response to the Sony Pictures hack in 2014 that compromised personal information of Sony employees, as well as copies of unreleased films.
The feature may also have been used to prevent potentially embarrassing messages from resurfacing, such as a 2004 message sent by Mr Zuckerberg that reportedly called users of the social network “dumb fucks” for trusting him with their data. “After Sony Pictures’ emails were hacked in 2014 we made a number of changes to protect our executives’ communications,” Facebook said. “These included limiting the retention period for Mark’s messages in Messenger. We did so in full compliance with our legal obligations to preserve messages.” The messages were also missing when the affected users attempted to recover them using Facebook’s “download your information” tool.
Deleting private messages from people’s inboxes without their consent may potentially go against Facebook’s terms of service, which make no mention of removing content unless it is a violation of the firm’s community standards.
We spy on you for your own good. Trust us, we know better.
Facebook scans the links and images that people send each other on Facebook Messenger, and reads chats when they’re flagged to moderators, making sure the content abides by the company’s rules. If it doesn’t, it gets blocked or taken down. The company confirmed the practice after an interview published earlier this week with Chief Executive Officer Mark Zuckerberg raised questions about Messenger’s practices and privacy. Zuckerberg told Vox’s Ezra Klein a story about receiving a phone call related to ethnic cleansing in Myanmar. Facebook had detected people trying to send sensational messages through the Messenger app, he said. “In that case, our systems detect what’s going on,” Zuckerberg said. “We stop those messages from going through.”
Some people reacted with concern on Twitter: Was Facebook reading messages more generally? Facebook has been under scrutiny in recent weeks over how it handles users’ private data and the revelation struck a nerve. Messenger doesn’t use the data from the scanned messages for advertising, the company said, but the policy may extend beyond what Messenger users expect. The company told Bloomberg that while Messenger conversations are private, Facebook scans them and uses the same tools to prevent abuse there that it does on the social network more generally. All content must abide by the same “community standards.” People can report posts or messages for violating those standards, which would prompt a review by the company’s “community operations” team.
Automated tools can also do the work. “For example, on Messenger, when you send a photo, our automated systems scan it using photo matching technology to detect known child exploitation imagery or when you send a link, we scan it for malware or viruses,” a Facebook Messenger spokeswoman said in a statement. “Facebook designed these automated tools so we can rapidly stop abusive behavior on our platform.”
When Facebook looks at everybody’s everything, this should come as no surprise.
The U.S. Department of Homeland Security is looking to create a searchable database of hundreds of thousands of news sources, journalists, bloggers and “media influencers” for the federal government, a move a DHS spokesman called “standard practice.” In a job request posted last week to the Federal Business Opportunities website, the main contracting website used by the federal government, DHS wrote that it is seeking a contractor that is able to monitor up to 290,000 global news sources, track media coverage in up to 100 languages and can “track online, print, broadcast, cable, radio, trade and industry publications, local sources, national/international outlets, traditional news sources, and social media.”
The request also seeks the ability to build lists of journalists “based on beat, location, outlet type/size, and journalist role.” Data to be collected would also include an analysis of each news source’s “sentiment,” as well as geographical spread, top posters, languages, momentum and circulation. The database of “top media influencers” would include “present contact details and any other information that could be relevant, including publications this influencer writes for, and an overview of the previous coverage published by the media influencer.”
Treasuries are the only thing China can buy with its -dollar- surplus.
When China builds a trade surplus, it accumulates dollars. And it has to do something with those dollars. That means its purchase of US dollar assets is non-discretionary unless it revalues its currency. Every time there is some kind of dispute between China and the United States, a litany of voices emerges to warn of spiking interest rates. These warnings are wrong-headed. We went through this very same exercise in 2010. And Michael Pettis’s commentary is useful in this context. Let me quote from Michael and explain what it means in today’s context:
“If China runs a current account surplus, it must accumulate net foreign claims by exactly that amount, and the entity against which it accumulates those claims (adjusting for actions by other players within the balance of payments) ultimately must run the corresponding current account deficit. And as long as China ran the largest current account surplus ever recorded as a share of global GDP, and the US the largest current account deficit ever recorded, and especially since China also ran an additional capital account surplus (i.e. other non-PBoC agents ran a net capital inflow), it was almost impossible for the PBoC to do anything but buy US dollar assets. Given the sheer amounts, a substantial portion of these assets had inevitably to be USG bonds.“
The source of acrimony between China and the US is China’s trade surplus with the US. Now, when China builds this surplus, it accumulates dollars. And it has to do something with those dollars. And so, for a large portion of that dollar hoard, the Chinese have decided to store it as Treasury bonds. We don’t have to argue the merits of the Trump trade position here. It’s irrelevant regarding China’s accumulation of Treasury securities or mortgage-backed securities. Note that now it is Germany instead of China that has the largest current account surplus. And the EU has drawn Trump’s ire for this reason.
“..growing at an average annual rate of approximately 40% since 2009”
The Reserve Bank of Australia is concerned that the rapid expansion of China’s shadow banking sector over the past decade poses a threat to financial stability.The RBA estimates that China’s shadow banking sector currently stands at USD$7 trillion, or around 60% of GDP, after growing at an average annual rate of approximately 40% since 2009. This means China’s shadow banking sector is far largely proportionately compared to other emerging economies, and roughly on par with developed nations such as the UK and the US. The RBA points out that shadow banking has brought benefits to the Chinese economy, chief amongst them the provision of more innovative forms of financing to companies otherwise barred from the state-dominated banking system.
Chinese households also benefited by obtaining access to investment products that provide competitive yields, in a highly regulated financial environment that provides few investment options.These benefits have also created problems, however, in the form of surging debt growth beyond the purview of regulatory scrutiny, riskier lending that is still inextricably linked to the Chinese banking system, as well as liquidity and maturity mismatches.These risks have been further exacerbated by the relative inexperience of China’s retail investors, and the perception that many financial instruments such as bank wealth management products enjoy “implicit guarantees. ”Beijing is well aware of the risks associated with exorbitant debt growth via shadow banking activity, launching a crackdown on the sector over a year ago as part of a broader deleveraging campaign.
The recently merged banking and insurance regulator has also flagged a continued focus on local government and state-owned enterprise leverage, alongside concern over the rapid increase in household borrowing.According to RBA analysts, however, Chinese regulators are still struggling to control breakneck credit growth in the economy.“Chinese regulators have been trying to mitigate these risks for some time, but it has been a challenge to design regulations that address these risks and are not easily circumvented,” said RBA officials in the Australian central bank’s March bulletin. In January China posted record growth in lending, which surged to 2.9 trillion yuan (approx. USD$458.5 billion) for a five-fold increase compared to the preceding month.
What Xi can’t control.
The transformation of China’s economy, both in terms of GDP growth rate and poverty reduction since it started its transition to the market system in the late 1970s, has arguably been the biggest macroeconomic event of the past half-century. The model that has characterized the country’s high output growth rates has followed in the footsteps of the Asian “tigers“: first, its high growth rates of capital accumulation, driven by high investment-output ratios; second, a marked outward orientation through export-led growth policies; and third, the pursuit of industrialization (in particular the production and export of manufacturing goods), a key ingredient for fast growth and development. By almost every metric, China has advanced from economic backwater to the world’s second-largest GDP (and by some measures, is now the largest economy).
But in spite of signs of renewed economic activity in March, the country’s debt build-up has provoked increasing concern amongst Beijing’s policy makers, as it points to an underlying long-term financial fragility, particularly if trade war pressures intensify. Just last October during the Communist Party Plenary, Zhou Xiaochuan, then head of the country’s central bank, warned of a “Minsky moment“: “When there are too many pro-cyclical factors in an economy, cyclical fluctuations will be amplified. If we are too optimistic when things go smoothly, tensions build up, which could lead to a sharp correction, what we call a ‘Minsky Moment’. That’s what we should particularly defend against.”
To elaborate on Zhou’s statement, the economist Hyman Minsky described how once the debt “disease” goes metastatic, there will come a “Minsky moment” (a term originally coined by economist Paul McCulley) when euphoria gives way to concern and then to panic liquidation and credit revulsion. When that dynamic is in full flower, policy makers are powerless to avert it, no matter how much they want to bring the punchbowl back. Governor Zhou’s public warning was no doubt in response to recent rapid increase of debt which, according to Professor L. Randall Wray, “increased from 162% to 260% of GDP between 2008 and 2016,” and remains “a topic of discussion, if not deep concern.”
It may seem odd to warn of a Chinese slowdown, given the recent renewed surge in exports and the corresponding rise in both the manufacturing and non-manufacturing purchasing managing indices (both the manufacturing and service gauges remain above 50, and therefore indicative of robust economic activity). But these gains ought to be viewed against the backdrop of a more hostile external environment for Chinese manufactured goods. Discussing the recently imposed tariffs on steel and aluminum, the New York Times reported that Trump has already provided brief exemptions to “Canada, Mexico, the European Union, Australia, Argentina, Brazil and South Korea” (countries that “account for more than half of the $29 billion in steel sold to the United States in 2017”), which reinforces the idea that it is largely China that remains the major target of Trump’s economic nationalists.
A nice thought experiment.
“You can check out any time you like, but you can never leave.” Prior to the 2016 Brexit referendum, I borrowed this line from the Eagles’ 1976 hit “Hotel California” as an argument against Britain exiting the European Union. I told audiences up and down Britain that if they voted to leave the EU, they would end up more entangled with the EU Commission than ever before. As British Prime Minister Theresa May is finding out, disentangling a member state from the EU is an arduous and complex undertaking. But how much harder would Brexit have been had the United Kingdom adopted the euro back in 2000?
For starters, the people of Britain would never have been consulted on whether they wanted to check out of the EU. In a hypothetical eurozone Britain, the very announcement of a referendum on membership would have triggered a bank run. Given Britain’s chronic trade and current-account deficits, an exit from the euro would have necessarily caused a decline in the international value of UK bank deposits. Foreseeing this, depositors would have responded to the announcement of a referendum by immediately withdrawing their euros in cash or by wiring them to Frankfurt, Paris, New York, or elsewhere. And, foreseeing that reaction, no British prime minister, not even David Cameron, would have dared announce a Brexit referendum.
Looking further back, what would the effect of 16 years in the eurozone have been on the relative strength of Leavers and Remainers within the Conservative Party? What would Britain’s economic circumstances have been like prior to 2016 had the euro been the UK’s currency? Would the political pressure to hold the referendum in 2016 have been weaker had Britain shared the same currency as Germany, France, and Greece? As with all counterfactuals, we are treading on thin ice here. Nevertheless, it is not difficult to sketch a plausible economic past for a UK that, hypothetically, entered the eurozone in 2000.
Time to follow the money on pot.
Legalised cannabis use may help solve America’s opioid crisis, two scientific studies have suggested. Two separate peer-reviewed studies in the journal JAMA Internal Medicine found significant drops in opioid prescribing in US states that had relaxed their cannabis laws. Both studies appear to offer insights into possible ways to solve a crisis that saw 17,087 people die from prescription opioid overdoes in the US in 2016. The crisis has its origins in soaring prescription rates after a new generation of opioids were marketed in the 1980s and 1990s with inaccurate claims that they could alleviate chronic pain with minimal risk of addiction.
The new research was accompanied by an opinion piece in JAMA Internal Medicine which said both studies produced “results suggesting that cannabis legalisation may play a beneficial role in the opioid crisis”. In the first study, researchers at the University of Georgia, Athens, looked at Medicare Part D prescriptions for people over the age of 65 between 2010 and 2015. It found that prescriptions for all opioids decreased by 2.11 million daily doses per year from an average of 23.08 million daily doses per year when a state instituted any medical cannabis law. When a state opened marijuana dispensaries, opioid prescriptions dropped by 3.7 million daily doses per year.
Loophole. And a dangerous one.
Researchers in the US have been given the go-ahead to use gene-editing techniques to alter crops and plants. The decision opens the door for scientists to create a new generation of genetically altered crops without serious restriction and paves the way for approvals for similar work in Britain and the rest of Europe. The decision – by the US Department of Agriculture – has delighted scientists who had feared that limitations on the creation and growing of genetically modified crops would also be imposed on crops created using far simpler gene-editing techniques. “I think this decision by American legislators will have all sorts of benefits in the long run,” said Professor Denis Murphy of the University of South Wales.
“This is a win-win situation because agriculture for gene-editing is cheaper, faster, simpler and more precise than the genetic modification of plants, in which a gene is taken from one organism and moved to another.” The European Court of Justice indicated in January that it does not think crops created though gene-editing techniques should be regulated by the rules that govern genetically modified organisms in Europe. “At the same time, Britain’s Acre – the advisory committee on releases into the environment – also seems to be sympathetic to this position,” said Professor Huw Dylan Jones of Aberystwyth University. “It is very encouraging.”
In the wake of hostile green campaigns, Britain imposed severe restrictions on GM crops two decades ago and few have been grown. The prospect that this fate would also befall plants created by the newer and simpler technique of gene-editing worried many researchers who feared a technology at which Britain excels would be banned. These fears are now disappearing, they say. “If we have our own domestic gene-editing industry then scientists trained at our universities will have something to work on here when they qualify,” said Murphy. “At present, our young scientists have to go to work in another country if they want to continue working on the topic.”
Gene-editing could lead to the development of domestic crops particularly suited to Britain, said Dylan Jones. “Loliums and clovers that are good for grazing could be improved to make them more hardy, for example,” he said. “It is very hopeful.” Genetically modified crops are generated through the introduction of foreign DNA sequences. Gene-edited crops are created by editing an organism’s native genome. Gene-editing is more efficient, cheaper, quicker and more precise. By altering the DNA make-up of a gene the characteristics of a cell or an organism can be changed.
I don’t like calling living creatures ‘pests’, and the tone here is a bit sensational, but the core is resistance against pesticides. We must stop poisoning nature.
A pair of major agricultural pests have combined to produce a “mega-pest” that could threaten crops around the world. Losses from the original pest species, cotton bollworms and corn earworms, already amounts to billions of dollars worth of food. But a hybrid of the two, shows signs of rapidly developing resistance to pesticides and it scientists fear it could cross international boundaries undetected, wiping out all the crops it comes across. Bollworms and earworms are closely related. The bollworm has its origins in Africa, Asia and Europe while the earworm is a native of the Americas. Both are in fact moth caterpillars and they feed on more than 100 plant species including vital crops like corn, cotton, tomato and soybean.
A team of Australian scientists who discovered the hybrid mega-pests think the combination of international species could be creating a new strain with unlimited geographical boundaries. It is impossible to tell which individuals are hybrids just by looking at them, meaning by the time the hybrids have been detected it may be too late. [..] In Australia, a combination of pesticides is currently being employed to manage the nation’s bollworms, but chemical resistance is a major cause for concern. Bollworms are generally better at developing resistance than their earworm cousins, and are immune to the effects of many major insecticides.
However, within the “hybrid swarm” they studied in Brazil the scientists found creatures that were largely earworm in their genetic makeup, but with bollworm DNA coding for pesticide resistance. The scientists warned that the Brazilian case highlighted the threat that new “agriculturally problematic” strains of pest could soon spread throughout the rest of the Americas. “On top of the impact already felt in South America, recent estimates that 65% of the USA’s agricultural output is at risk of being affected by the bollworm demonstrates that this work has the potential to instigate changes to research priorities that will have direct ramifications for the people of America, through the food on their tables and the clothes on their backs,” said Dr Craig Anderson, one of the study’s authors.